Tonight I chanced to watch the 2014 adaptation of V.C. Andrews’ cult classic Flowers in the Attic, starring Ellen Burstyn, Heather Graham and Kiernan Shipka (Sally Draper in Mad Men).
I was actually surprised how negative many of the reviews on IMDB were (and how many of them defended the 1987 adaptation, which I’ve only ever heard described as bad), since I felt that the 2014 Flowers in the Attic was a surprisingly good and accurate adaptation of a novel that is not exactly easy to adapt.
Spoilers for both book and movie in the following:
Now it’s been almost twenty-five years since I’ve read the books. Like most teen girls who devoured those books in the 1980s, I was given them (well, the first book at any rate) by another teen girl, in this case my cousin, and later bought – or rather persuaded my parents to buy – my own set. It’s quite fascinating how the V.C. Andrews books spread virally from teen girl to teen girl via word of mouth with zero promotion (at least, I never saw any promotion) and completely under the radar of adults. I did my part in spreading the word as well and recommended the books to several friends at school. Indeed, if you talk to women who were teens in the 1980s, most of them will have read either Flowers in the Attic and sequels or Clan of the Cave Bear and sequels or both, while men of the same age as well as people who are a few years older or younger usually have no idea what you’re talking about.
Coincidentally, I watched the film version with my Mom who had no knowledge of the story whatsoever and didn’t remember buying the books for me (because I’d asked for them for my birthday) either. She did like the movie, though. “How did you even find those books?”, she asked me. “Silke gave me the first one”, I said, “And then I got you to buy me the rest.”
Watching the movie, I was struck with how well I still remembered the details of the story some twenty-five years and hundreds of other books after I first read it. Flowers in the Attic may not have been a good book (and I’m not even tempted to reread it, because I know I’ll only be disappointed), but by hell, it sure was a memorable one.
The TV movie sticks very closely to the novel, though it seems rushed in places, which is probably due to the short run time of 86 minutes. The episode of Chris feeding the twins with his own blood, when the grandmother didn’t bring them food for a week, is missing altogether and the arsenic poisoning plot towards the end feels rushed. We only see the kids eating doughnuts once and Cory falls ill very rapidly rather than slowly wasting away. Chris and Cathy only look ill in the last few scenes, while Carrie never really looks sick at all.
On the other hand, it seems to me that there is more emphasis placed on the incest subplot than in the novel, but then I might be misremembering things, because unlike most other readers of the books, I never found the incest particularly thrilling. I merely viewed it as “the sort of thing that happens if kids grow up in such unnatural circumstances”. The actual incest happens off-screen – we only see the aftermath, probably because both Kiernan Shipka and Mason Dye, the actors who played Cathy and Chris, were underage when the film was made. The first sexual encounter between Chris and Cathy is also portrayed as consensual in the movie, whereas it was pretty much rape in the novel, but I’m not going to argue with that change, because I always found the rape distasteful and not really in character for Chris either. But then, the novel was published in the late 1970s, when sex scene often meant rape scene.
I like the decision to turn Flowers in the Attic into a period piece and keep the setting in the 1950s, because the story wouldn’t work in a contemporary setting at all. And while I don’t recall if the novel ever explicitly specifies when the story is set, it was always obvious to me that neither the Dollanganger series nor the Casteel series (Heaven and sequels) nor My Sweet Audrina were set in the present (i.e. the 1980s), because the stories just didn’t feel contemporary even back then.
Coincidentally, Kiernan Shipka seems stuck in period settings, since most of us associate the actress with the role of Sally Draper in Mad Men, which is set a little later. She also has the tendency to play the daughter of horrible mothers, though Corinne has even Betty Draper beat in the horribleness department.
Talking of which, I liked Kiernan Shipka’s performance as Cathy a lot, but then everybody who’s watched Mad Men knows she can act. I have never seen the 1987 version, so I cannot compare them. But Kristy Swanson, who played Cathy in the 1987 version, has never impressed me in anything. Plus, at 18 she was too old for the part, whereas Kiernan Shipka was just right at 14.
Mason Dye was okay as Chris. He nailed the protectiveness of Chris towards his younger siblings well, though he did seem a bit too naive. At any rate, I don’t recall Chris in the books being quite as naive as movie Chris. Mason Dye does seem a bit tall and muscular for Chris (well, the actor is on the cast of Teen Wolf), particularly for the early scenes, when he’s supposed to be fourteen. But then it is difficult to portray two years of physical development in a movie that’s shot in a few months. They could have messed his hair a bit more, though, since it’s unlikely Cathy would have cut it that well. The kids who plays the twins are physically spot on, though they don’t have very much to do.
Ellen Burstyn is fabulous as Olivia Foxworth, but then she is an Academy Award winner and was nominated for an Emmy for this role, though she lost to Kathy Bates. A lot of people praise Louise Fletcher’s performance in the 1987 movie and of course, Louise Fletcher is a fabulous actress, particularly in villainous roles. But I’ve never seen the 1987 movie and was very impressed with Ellen Burstyn’s performance. I particularly liked the rare glimpses of humanity in the harsh facade of Olivia, glimpses that readers of the books don’t get until Garden of Shadows which is narrated from Olivia’s POV.
Heather Graham, who is not normally an actress known for dramatic parts, got a lot of flak for her performance as Corinne Foxworth. She certainly does have the right look for the part and captures the superficiality and coldness of Corinne quite well. Nonetheless, she wouldn’t have been my first choice for the role. In fact, I kept comparing her to January Jones, the other Barbie-doll-pretty blonde actress who played Kiernan Shipka’s icily superficial mother (though Betty never served arsenic laced doughnuts to anyone). If given the choice, I would have preferred January Jones as Corinne, though Heather Graham was perfectly adequate.
So in short, I enjoyed the movie (so did my Mom, who never read the books) and am a bit baffled by the many negative reviews. I guess they’re partly due to the fact that the movie was broadcast on the Lifetime channel, which has a bad reputation in the US. Plus, I suspect that many of those who devoured the books already had an image of the Dollangangers and Foxworth Hall in their heads. The actors in the movie match my personal image quite well (though Foxworth Hall should have been grander), but that doesn’t necessarily mean they match other people’s image. I am a bit baffled by how many people claim to prefer the 1987 movie, since I’ve never heard anything good about it. But I guess it still holds a fond place in many people’s hearts, particularly since it came out at the height of the books’ popularity.
Finally, here is something disturbing I realised while watching the movie. The Dollangangers/Foxworths are a perfectly blonde family with dark secrets, a horrible head of the family, a case of brother/sister incest that begins during adolescence and continues into adulthood and a younger sibling with stunted growth. Now does that remind you of anybody?
Exactly, of everybody’s favourite dysfunctional blonde family, the Lannisters of Casterly Rock. Indeed, halfway through watching Flowers in the Attic it hit me: The Dollangangers are an alternate reality version of the Lannisters or vice versa.
Now I have no idea if George R.R. Martin ever read Flowers in the Attic or whether he was aware of it via cultural osmosis, but the parallels are striking. What is more, the infamous Red Wedding also bears striking parallels to the Moldavian wedding massacre on the 1980s soap Dynasty. Together, this makes me wonder whether A Song of Ice and Fire does not just liberally borrow from history (which it clearly does), but was also influenced by the melodramatic media of the 1980s.